Lord God Bird Redux: Is the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker Really Back?

Whatever became of the rediscovered Ivory-Billed Woodpecker that we thought we had lost to extinction? What other animals that we thought went extinct have “come back” from the dead?

—Betsey Edgewater, Austin, TX

Whether or not the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker is extinct in the Southeastern U.S. is still a matter of debate. The last conclusive evidence of the bird’s existence in the U.S. dates back to 1944; most biologists presume the species didn’t hang on around here much longer than that. And the last confirmed sighting of the species anywhere was in Cuba in 1986.

ivory billed woodpecker 400x267 Lord God Bird Redux: Is the Ivory Billed Woodpecker Really Back?
The only Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers we can be sure of seeing these days are scientific specimen samples, although birders are keeping hope alive that the so-called Lord God Bird will re-appear “on the wing” somewhere in the swamps of the Southeastern U.S. Credit: Billtacular, FlickrCC

But then in April 2004, amateur birder David Luneau captured video of what he claimed to be an Ivory-Billed Woodpecker making its rounds in the Arkansas’ Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, soon thereafter sparking international interest in the story of the bird that came back from the dead.

But doubters point out that the bird Luneau saw may have been a common Pileated Woodpecker, giving the similar size and coloring of the two different birds. Luneau’s shaky, distant video is far from conclusive proof, and since then no one else has managed a confirmed sighting of the bird at Cache River or anywhere else in the woodpecker’s traditional range. A 2016 trip to Cuba by researchers from Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology looking for evidence of living Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers there likewise turned up nothing. While birders continue to hope the majestic woodpecker turns up again, no one is holding their breath.

But one source of optimism for the Ivory-Billed’s return continues to be other examples of wildlife coming back from the dead. Some of the most famous “larazus taxa” species—the name refers to the biblical Gospel of John, in which Jesus raises his follower Lazarus from the dead—include the Coelacanth, a prehistoric fish thought to have gone extinct with the dinosaurs 65 million years ago but started showing up in fishermen’s hauls in the late 1930s; the Lord Howe Island Stick Insect, thought to be driven to extinction on the remote Australian island by invasive rats in the 1930s only to reappear in the 1960s; and the Terror Skink of New Caledonia, presumed extinct by the 1990s but then rediscovered in 2003.

Likewise, New Zealand’s Takahē, a large flightless bird, was thought to be driven to extinction as a result of predation by introduced rats, cats and pigs at the end of the 20th century. But in 1948 a small population of living Takahēs was discovered near an isolated lake in a remote mountainous region. These days a population of more than 200 of the birds is holding steady in New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park.

Other lazarus taxa examples include Cuba’s Solenodon, the Bermuda Petrel, Laos’ Rock Rat, the Canary Islands’ La Palma Giant Lizard, Japan’s Black Kokonee, Columbia’s Painted Frog, the Bavarian Pine Vole of Europe’s Alps and Indonesia’s Banggai Crow. Of course, the term lazarus taxa isn’t reserved just for fauna: The Mt. Diablo Buckwheat, an inconspicuous little pink flower last seen in the 1930s on the slopes of the San Francisco Bay Area’s highest peak, reappeared in 2005 much to the delight of botanists.